Friday 17 November 2017

No nerves? You have to wonder who Brendan Rodgers is trying to kid

Liverpool manager's transparent attempt to play down pressure cuts no ice as expectation reaches fever pitch ahead of title showdown

James Lawton

James Lawton

Before the biggest match of the Premier League season – and potentially Liverpool's rite of passage back among the elite – Brendan Rodgers declares: "We are just going to enjoy the occasion. There are no nerves for us."

Thus the most arresting leader at Anfield since the arrival of Bill Shankly lays his hands on his first trophy.

It is the Hans Christian Andersen award for fairytale invention. Plausibility may have become one of the least important challenges facing Rodgers in a brilliant campaign but here, surely, is a lunge too far.

If Liverpool do beat Manchester City on Sunday, if they take a massive stride towards relieving the 24-year ache of title failure, it will be an achievement heralded for a host of good reasons. But going carelessly into arguably the greatest challenge of their football lives is unlikely to be one of them.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine quite such an accumulation of emotional pressure and expectation on any one set of players.


Liverpool, let's face it, confront more than a moment of truth against the most formidably-resourced club in English football. They have to respond to a great tribal yearning, and one only intensified by the historical happenchance of it being the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough.

Liverpool fans, still the most passionate in the land, believe they are nearer justice for the 96 victims than ever before, and with this exhilaration, and relief, comes the possibility of a stunning triumph by the team.

No nerves? You have to wonder who Rodgers is most intent on kidding, with the suspicion that it is no one more than himself.

This is him contemplating a week when the title which seemed so far away when he succeeded Kenny Dalglish less than two seasons ago is within touching distance.

"City have invested to win the Premier League and the Champions League and they are looking to get a result. We are just going to enjoy it. We know it's a big game. But in the big games this season we've tended to do well."

No doubt they have but whenever before did they, and their young manager, go into one with quite such decisive possibilities?

Beat City and Liverpool have a head of momentum that might even give pause to Jose Mourinho in his latest resurrection when he arrives at Anfield in two weeks' time. Lose and City, with a restored Sergio Aguero, are just one point behind them with two games in hand.

For Liverpool, High Noon on Sunday offers only one prospect of undiluted enjoyment, and that will only come at the final whistle if they can tell themselves they have truly faced the meaning of a single football match.

This is so self-evident before a contest which has at its heart the two most sensational performers of this intriguing season – City's Aguero and his fellow South American virtuoso Luis Suarez – that Rodgers' dismissive theories on exaggerated pressure have to be seen for what they are.

They are, surely, an attempt to scale down the reality that faces himself and his players. It is that sometimes there comes a day when all of your hopes may just be concentrated on one piece of composed, sustained action.

It is, of course, the beauty of football, this capacity to carry everyone involved into newly heightened levels of experience.

The contemplation of covering new, career-changing ground, is also the pressure on Rodgers' rival on Sunday.

Manuel Pellegrini left an impressive title-winning track record in South America before testing himself in the European game but despite impressive work at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga, he still yearns for a significant trophy on this side of the Atlantic.

Sunday is also his querencia – the place on the sand where a fighting bull makes his stand.

The, mostly, amiably mannered Chilean is perhaps not given to such ferocious imagery but there is no doubt that behind the soft, world-weary smile there is a fierce competitive nature. This week he certainly moved onto the front foot after City's ultimately effective 4-1 bludgeoning of Southampton last weekend.

His take on the tactical – and psychological – imperatives certainly seemed rather more sure-footed than that of Rodgers.

City, he said, had to be true to the nature he has attempted to shape since taking over from the congenitally cautious Roberto Mancini just last summer.

Back home he is known as 'the Builder' both for a distinguished earlier life as a civil engineer and as a football coach who won titles in Chile, Ecuador and, most significantly, in Argentina. Now he believes his new creation is best displayed in the light of full-scale attack.

He says: "Maybe I'm wrong but I always think in the same way as a manager – if you play to draw, you lose, so we are going to play to win. Of course after the game if we couldn't win the game and we draw it is a good result.

"But we are not going to play against Liverpool thinking we must draw. The truth is we don't really know how to play that way.

"The good thing about this match is that at their best both play in a most entertaining way."


Most compelling of all, of course, is the test of character which will be required if one or both teams are to prove that they have the quality not only to win the Premiere League but also restore some of its reputation across Europe.

For a victorious Liverpool that second ambition would remain a little further down the road.

Their progress this season has been little short of astonishing but Rodgers, given a lingering vulnerability in defence, is probably right to talk in terms of a work in relatively early progress.

Pellegrini has less room to manoeuvre. He was brought in to deliver hard and quick results rather than build a team and pick out new horizons.

Whatever happens on Sunday, is Rodgers' achievement perhaps permits a little time to tell a fairy story or two. Pellegrini, much more pressingly, has to live in the here and now and the suspicion must be that he will do it a little more effectively on his most important day in English football.

Irish Independent

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